When yarning with distinguished professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson, the Goenpul author of Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, your first priority is to keep up. Moreton-Robinson has a famously-sharp intellect, and is never not observing and evaluating social systems.
She attributes this to two things: an enduring Goenpul way of analysing; and being taught early on to apply this to the system of whiteness, on which she has become one of Australia’s most formidable thinkers.
“Toni Morrison writes that there’s a moment when as a child you come to understand that you’re black,” she says. “My moment was when I was about three years old.”
I was screaming, ‘Help! Help! Why won’t they help?’ She picked me up and said, ‘Because they’re not like us.’
Moreton-Robinson was born on Queensland’s Stadbroke Island, Quandamooka Country, in 1956. “I was very fortunate in that I was raised by my grandparents and I was raised on Country,” she says. “We didn’t really leave the island unless we had to, and then we had to get permission from the Protector of Aborigines to go visit my grandfather’s two sisters at Cherbourg.”
She could tell white people were different just by watching the way her grandparents were treated in public, but there is one memory in particular that stuck with her: “My nan and I were walking across Queen Street in Brisbane, and then her heel was caught in a tram track and she fell down. I can still see the cars coming, and people stepping on her and over her. I witnessed this, right?
“She crawled on her knees to a lamp-post and pulled herself up. And by this time I was screaming, because I could see she had blood on her knees. I was just screaming, ‘Help! Help! Why won’t they help?’ She picked me up and calmed me and then she said, ‘Because they’re not like us.’
“And I looked at them. That is the moment I saw white people. At three, that is the moment I saw them. And that indelibly marked me for the rest of my life. I have never stopped observing. I never stopped looking.”
It’s 20 years since the release of Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, an innovative text that made a serious intergenerational intellectual impact on First Nations women on this continent and overseas, where Moreton-Robinson was made a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In the book – which has never been out of print – Moreton-Robinson not only analysed and criticised how white feminists constructed their ideas about Aboriginal women, but also showed how Aboriginal women made their own intellectual constructions of white feminism. This is hardly novel in First Nations public life today, in part because of Moreton-Robinson’s groundwork; she says the book catalysed a way of thinking about “representation as an epistemological possession”, which came to also shape her later works on The White Possessive.
Now, for its anniversary reissue through UQP, Moreton-Robinson has supplemented the text with new analysis and reflections. Among them is a story of how she sent a copy of the newly released book home to Stradbroke Island decades ago, and was invited to meet with the Elder women from whom she had learned and grown. She was nervous. They were at the centre of Talkin’ Up, the very reason it was written. Her work was accountable to them.
“When I say I come from warrior women, I actually do come from women who fought,” she says. “We were known amongst the tribes in south-east Queensland for our physical prowess as Quandamooka women. And formidable, intellectually formidable, women! These two attributes of women’s warriorship were normal for me, right? So, writing the book was just an extension of them.”
The elders were “really, really, really proud”. As she recounts in her new introduction, her late mother – “a wise and clever woman who was known for her short but incisive commentary on people and the world” – said, “You have talked up to the white women on our behalf.”
Over 10 years after Talkin’ Up was originally released, Moreton-Robinson was still experiencing nausea before keynotes – until her mother told her, “You will never be alone when you stand up. We stand with you.”
“Part of the internal struggle for me wasn’t I didn’t want to let anybody down,” she says. “You know, I didn’t want to bring shame in public. You’re really vulnerable when you’re presenting in public. I’m always, always conscious of my obligations to our people and the fact that I have to do my best when I speak.
“I ended up where I am not because I control the journey. It’s always the ancestors that shaped and determined what path I take.”
The new edition of Talkin’ Up concludes with a response from Moreton-Robinson to how white feminists – many of whom have since sidelined the text – initially received it. The first edition ended with the author asking white feminist scholars to seriously theorise about giving up power, and then to start doing it. It launched in the shadow of a defamation threat from an unnamed white feminist academic, who contested Moreton-Robinson’s analysis of her and her work.
The reviews at the time were “sado-masochistic”, Moreton-Robinson writes, laced with “playing chicken at the intersection … [their] understanding of how power works limited to subjective and individual choices about being ‘good’ or ‘bad’.”
“I wanted people to see that even in reviews, the behaviours and thinking I revealed in the book were still being reproduced,” she says now. “I don’t think some of the reviewers understood the work, or they read it through the lens that they wanted to read it through.
“My response to the reviewers was also about sending a message to Indigenous women scholars: ‘You have the right to respond.’ Even though that’s not seen as the etiquette.”
With this new release, and with renewed attention on Talkin’ Up at just the right time, Moreton-Robinson makes full use of her right to response. The enduring significance of this work is ready for another generation of First Nations thinkers. When asked what response she anticipates from non-Indigenous readers this time, she says, “I really had no plans for the book when it first came out. This time, what I realised was that people wanted to read it, even though it’s an old book. It’s new for them.”
• The 20th anniversary edition of Talkin’ Up to the White Woman is out now through UQP